A bipartisan approach to break the deadlock on internet regulation
Around the world, lawmakers are writing the new rules of the internet. In Europe, India, Australia, the UK and elsewhere, laws are being proposed governing everything from privacy and content, to the size and competitiveness of technology companies and how data is held, shared and used at scale.
This is a good thing — regulation is overdue. For too long, many of these important issues have been left to private companies to deal with alone. Far from resisting regulation, Facebook has advocated it in a number of areas for some time now.
President Biden has called for a global alliance of “techno-democracies,” but efforts to regulate tech in Washington have stalled. Much of the domestic debate is devoted to whether to break up big tech companies, but not on the fundamental societal issues at stake — like rules around privacy, safety, content, and data sharing — which can only be fixed by regulation.
This is a pivotal moment. As policymakers begin drafting laws, it’s increasingly clear there are contrasting visions of what the internet should be.
The open, accessible and global internet we use today has been shaped by American companies and American values like free expression, transparency, accountability and the encouragement of innovation and entrepreneurship. But these values can’t be taken for granted.
The Chinese internet model — segregated from the wider internet and subject to extensive surveillance — presents a risk to the open internet. Other countries, including Vietnam, Russia and Turkey, have taken steps in a similar direction.
Even in many open democratic societies, there is talk of “data sovereignty” and moves to clamp down on American companies and the sharing of data. Seamless data flows are the life blood of an open internet. But European court rulings have thrown data transfers between the E.U. and U.S. into doubt. Protecting our economies by ensuring the free flow of data between the E.U. and U.S. should be an urgent priority on both sides of the Atlantic. In India, the world’s largest democracy, regulators have published rules that expand the government’s ability to direct social media platforms to trace and take down content, including private messages.
The U.S. risks becoming a nation that exports incredible technologies, but fails to export its values. To make progress, we need to break the gridlock in DC. While there are substantial disagreements between Democrats and Republicans, no one wants the status quo and there’s much both sides agree on.
I’m an outsider to both Silicon Valley and Washington. My background is in British and European politics. As the Deputy Prime Minister in the U.K.’s first coalition government for generations, I led a naturally center-left party into a constructive governing arrangement with a center-right one. It worked because we focused on making progress on the things we agreed on.
Here are four areas where I believe progress could be made quickly with a bipartisan approach.
First, reform of Section 230. People of all political persuasions want large companies to take responsibility for combating illegal content and activity on their platforms. And when they remove harmful content, people want them to do so fairly and transparently. Congress could start there.
Platforms should only be granted continued protection from liability for the content they carry if they can demonstrate that they have robust practices for identifying illegal content and quickly removing it. While it would be impractical to hold them liable if a particular piece of content evades detection — there are billions of posts every day — they should be required to follow industry best practices. Congress could also bring more transparency, accountability, and oversight to the processes by which large internet companies make and enforce rules about what users can do or say on their services.
Second, Congress could do more to protect against influence operations. Companies can and do take steps to root out organized networks seeking to mislead people and undermine public trust. But Congress can create deterrence that no industry effort can match. Our teams have published recommended principles for regulation in this space, with a focus on imposing cost on the people behind these campaigns, and creating clarity on the boundary between deception and advocacy. Congress could act now to mandate platform transparency, enable lawful information sharing and impose liability directly on the people and organizations behind malicious influence operations. Congress could also update the rules around the use of social media in elections — rules which haven’t changed meaningfully to account for the internet era. For example, we’ve supported regulation like the Honest Ads Act and the Deter Act to prevent election interference.
Third, Congress can break the deadlock on federal privacy legislation. The U.S. is watching from the sidelines as others write the global playbook on privacy, with significant implications for American values, competitiveness and national security. But there’s much Democrats and Republicans agree on. By looking for a sensible middle ground Congress could make real progress, for example by establishing strong regulatory enforcement, and giving businesses certainty to operate.
Fourth, Congress should set out clear rules on data portability to better enable people to move their data between services and “vote with their feet.” It could also create rules to govern how platforms should share data for the public good. As society grapples with how to address misinformation, harmful content, and rising polarization, Facebook research could provide insights that help design evidence-based solutions. But to do that, there needs to be a clear regulatory framework for data research that preserves individual privacy.
Finally, to address these issues and more, the U.S. could create a new digital regulator. Not only would a new regulator be able to navigate the competing trade-offs in the digital space, it would be able to join the dots between issues like content, data, and economic impact — much like the Federal Communications Commission has successfully exercised regulatory oversight over telecoms and media.
By focusing on the areas where there is agreement on both sides, Congress can break the deadlock and create the most comprehensive internet legislation in a generation. In doing so, it can help to preserve the American values at the heart of the global internet.
This piece was originally published on CNBC.com on May 24, 2021.